STRAIGHT WHITE MEN:

What the fuck are we gonna do about Straight White Men? – Kelsey Cordrey, Director

A Theater Review (kinda, I think) by Julinda D. Lewis

Produced by: The Conciliation Lab

At: The Basement, 300 E. Broad Street, RVA 23219

Performances: December 3-18, 2021.

Ticket Prices: $30 General Admission; $20 Senior/Industry (RVATA); $10 Student/Teacher (with valid ID)

Info: (804) 506-3533; 349-7616 or https://theconciliationlab.org/

NOTE: Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 48 hours of the performance must be shown at the box office.

Walking down the steep staircase to The Basement for opening night of STRAIGHT WHITE MEN we were greeted by blasting music (yes, that was CardiB’s “WAP”), flashing colored lights (the disco kind, not the Christmas tree kind), and a sign that told us to wait until the house opened in the least welcoming terms imaginable. A pre-show curtain talk by the People in Charge, Lucretia Marie and Malakai Lee, confirmed that STRAIGHT WHITE MEN makes no allowances for comfort zones. Just as Marie and Lee reached the end of their curtain speech, four straight white men (Adam Turck, Axle Burtness, Patrick Rooney, and Christopher Dunn) stumbled noisily into the theatre, setting themselves up for a humorous reversal of the CPT (colored people time) stereotype.

I think we can agree that STRAIGHT WHITE MEN is a strange title for a play produced by the Conciliation Lab – a company dedicated to social justice. Marie (a seasoned performer, activist, and anti-racism coach) and Lee (a student activist inside and outside of school at Henrico High School, Center for the Arts) making his professional debut in this show) both joke about this too, noting that neither of them is a straight white man, and one even remarked that a friend asked, “Did they see you?” before they hired you for the show. And anyway, why should we, much less the Conciliation Lab, be concerned about straight white men, with all the privilege they represent?

Having seen the VaRep production of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE the previous evening, I couldn’t help but make a comparison. Both are Christmas shows. Both center around a depressed straight white man whose crisis comes to a head on Christmas Eve. Both are about love and family relationships. Both are also directed by talented women. Given all these similarities, the two plays could not be more different. Where IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFEis a holiday classic, STRAIGHT WHITE MEN is a different style of theatre intended to be confrontational, to make the complacent feel uncomfortable and upset the expected and accepted order. (And as if literary confrontation was not enough, I was seated in the front row on the sold out opening night, barely three feet from the edge of the stage, a position I highly recommend for this production.)

Written in 2014, the opening of STRAIGHT WHITE MEN at the Helen Hayes Theatre in 2018, made history as the first play by an Asian American woman to be produced on Broadway. The author’s notes specify that the pre-show is to include loud rap music with sexually explicit lyrics performed by female rappers and that the Persons in Charge “should be played by gender-nonconforming performers (preferably of color).” The intent is to create the sense that the show is under the control of people who are NOT straight white men – a role reversal, if you will; a case of turn about is fair play, a sort of theatrical reparations, if you will. And while Marie and Lee seemed to be joking when they said audience members would be removed at the actors’ request, this, too, was in the author’s notes.

Kelsey Cordrey, in her solo directorial debut, kept everything moving at a rapid pace, marked by hilarity. The cast of four white men did her proud, keeping up the pace with an abundance of high impact physical activity while still allowing time to explore the psychological twists, turns, and nuances of this family.

The plot, you see, involves a family of three sons, two of whom (Drew, a writer and Jake, a successful but recently divorced banker) have returned home for Christmas where their widowed father, Ed, has recently been enjoying the company – and domestic skills – of his eldest son, Matt, an unemployed Harvard graduate. The problem is that in spite of the brothers’ good-natured rough-housing and reminiscing about childhood indiscretions, Matt is harboring and unsuccessfully hiding, some serious issues. It all comes out when he suddenly breaks down crying over Christmas Eve dinner.

Adam Turck is the caring insightful sibling, Drew. Axle Burtness plays Jake, the impatient sibling who wants to fix his older brother, regardless of what Matt actually wants. And Matt, played by Patrick Rooney, a newcomer to the Richmond stage, appears to be a caring, lovable man who, despite his Harvard education, seems barely able to articulate his own feelings. An Ed? Well, Ed is from another generation. He helps his neighbors, even when it isn’t convenient, like on Christmas Eve. Christopher Dunn’s character lovingly hangs Christmas stockings on the mantle, and gently pauses when he comes to the fifth – the one that belongs to his late wife – retuning it to the Person in Charge. Who can’t relate to the loneliness of an old widower celebrating his first Christmas without his beloved wife? And therein – herein? – lies the problem. Why should we, the audience, care about the feelings or problems of privileged straight white men?

It seems that every time there is a chance we might begin to sympathize with Matt or his family, a Person in Charge appears and adjusts the emotional thermostat. In addition to the scene with the Christmas stockings, one memorable intervention involves Marie and sharing shots with a frustrated brother at the kitchen counter after a family quarrel.

In her Director’s Note, Cordrey writes:

When all we seem to see on the news are Straight White Men murdering Black and Brown and queer and trans people, and sexually assaulting women – and always getting away with it – it is extremely difficult to find any compassion and care for the entire group as a construct. But what about the straight white men in our day to day lives? Our fathers, brothers, neighbors, friends?

Are you ready to consider the perspective of straight white men with empathy and compassion? To put yourself in their shoes – even if you are not one of them? Is it time for the privileged to re-examine and re-define their own personal identity? Can any of us make any progress, any real change, if they don’t? What will it take for everyone to treat others the way they want to be treated – and to do it without expecting to earn a badge of recognition for doing it? Does STRAIGHT WHITE MEN answer any of these questions? I’ll leave that up to you do decide.

Cordrey directed with her foot on the pedal and created the sound design as well. Michael Jarrett returned to the Basement to light his first show for the Conciliation Lab, with the excellence we have come to expect of him. Nia Safarr Banks brought her skills to the table as costume designer, complete with holiday pajamas and slippers. Chris Foote constructed the warmly lived-in midwestern den and kitchen designed by artistic director Deejay Gray. (My friend and I admired the large stainless steel refrigerator that I later found out is the actual refrigerator used by the Conciliation Lab staff.)

STRAIGHT WHITE MEN is not your traditional Christmas show, and it isn’t what you might expect from the Conciliation Lab – and those are just two good reasons to go see it. The cast of four white men  – that’s two more reasons. And Marie and Lee, who execute the author’s and director’s instructions and make you think it’s their own ideas, all while wearing matching light-up shades and coordinating neckties – well that’s at least another two good reasons that make this production of STRAIGHT WHITE MEN worth your time and money.

STRAIGHT WHITE MEN by Young Jean Lee
Directed by Kelsey Cordrey
December 3-18 at The Basement

THE CAST
Drew …………….……………….. Adam Turck
Jake …….…………..…….……. Axle Burtness
Matt ………….……..…….…. Patrick Rooney
Ed …………………………. Christopher Dunn
Person in Charge #1 …… Lucretia Marie
Person in Charge #2 ………. Malakai Lee

THE TEAM
Direction: Kelsey Cordrey
Scenic Design: Deejay Gray
Lighting Design: Michael Jarett
Sound Design: Kelsey Cordrey
Costume Design: Nia Safarr Banks
Props Design: Margaret Dodson
Set Construction: Chris Foote
Production Stage Management: Crimson Piazza
Assistant Stage Management: Demarco Lumpkin
Associate Direction: Juliana Caycedo
Dramaturgy: Shinji Oh

THE SCHEDULE
* Friday, December 3 at 8pm – Preview
Saturday, December 4 at 8pm – Opening Night Tuesday, December 7 at 8pm
Thursday, December 9 at 8pm
Friday, December 10 at 8pm
Saturday, December 11 at 8pm
Sunday, December 12 at 3pm – Matinee
Tuesday, December 14 at 8pm
Thursday, December 16 at 8pm
Friday, December 17 at 8pm
Saturday, December 18 at 8pm – Closing Night
THE TICKETS
$30 – General Admission
$20 – Senior (65+) / Industry
$10 – Teachers & Students

NOTE: The Basement is a fully vaccinated venue. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test (within 48 hours of the performance) are required upon entry. For the safety of our artists and audiences, masks must be worn while at the theatre. Thank you for helping to keep our community safe!
  The Basement is located at 300 East Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23219

Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

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Author: jdldances

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer, born and raised in Brooklyn, NY and transplanted to Richmond, VA. A retiree from both the New York City and Richmond City Public School systems, she is currently an Adjunct Instructor for the Department of Dance and Choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University, and holds the degrees of BS and MA in Dance and Dance Education (New York University), MSEd in Early Childhood Education (Brooklyn College, CUNY), and EdD in Educational Leadership (Regent University). Julinda is the Richmond Site Leader for TEN/The Eagles Network and was formerly the East Region Coordinator for the International Dance Commission and has worked in dance ministry all over the US and abroad (Bahamas, Barbados, Haiti, Jamaica, Kenya, Puerto Rico). She is licensed in dance ministry by the Eagles International Training Institute (2012), and was ordained in dance ministry through Calvary Bible Institute and Seminary, Martinez, GA (2009).

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